28 March 2024

What has he done to/for you?

Mass of the Last Supper

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP
Church of the Incarnation, Irving

Do you realize what I have done for you?” An ominous question for the disciples. Knowing as we do that all but John were horribly murdered for bearing witness to the Gospel, we can be forgiven for thinking the better question would be, “Do you realize what I have done TO you?” What did their teacher and friend do to them? He made them servants. He made them slaves to a way of life that requires them to become divine love incarnate. To the limits of their gifts, they must be living, breathing incarnations of the Father's love, bearing word of His freely offered mercy to the world. So, why would we think that this has been done TO them rather than FOR them? Because their intended audience – the world – hates a slave, loves sin, and despises mercy. Weakness. Cowardice. Helpless. Frail. For the world, sacrifice is failure. Surrender is impotence. Obedience, a disgrace. And service, service is best left to those too faint to rule. The world proudly shouts, “Non serviam!” The apostles with their freshly washed feet answer, “Serviam.” And b/c they served, they died. But they died bearing witness to the divine love that redeems the world. Do you realize what Christ has done for and to you?”

Jesus interrupts his last supper with the apostles to wash their feet. Everyone at that table understands what's happening. Their Master and Teacher is lowering himself, taking on the role of a house slave, to serve them in a way most actual slaves would resent doing. It's a dirty, humiliating job. Peter – being Peter! – objects. Though we can only speculate on his reasons for objecting, we can definitely say that he's forgotten Jesus' earlier rebuke – “Get behind me, Satan!” He hasn't yet learned that Jesus doesn't need Peter to protect his dignity. He doesn't want Peter to protect him from his prophetic mission. He says to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” If you will not allow me to serve you, you cannot be my brother, a son to the Father. If you refuse my service, you cannot be an heir to the Kingdom. Peter relents and allows his Teacher to wash his feet. Peter receives the grace of service and becomes in the receiving a servant himself. He will die as Christ did – on a cross. A martyr-sacrifice, an incarnation of divine love.

If you have been washed in baptism and sealed with the Holy Spirit, do you realize what Christ has done for and to you?” Imperfect now, still growing in holiness and traveling the Way, he has made you a Christ for the salvation of the world. He has made you a slave to the Gospel, a servant of divine love and a witness in the prosecution of the world's hatred of mercy. You chose this life. Don't blame Mom and Dad or your peers. There are no armed guards here tonight forcing your presence at the sacrifice of the altar. You chose this. You chose the life of a servant. You chose the life of a witness. You chose to walk the way of holiness and peace. You even chose to wash the feet of Christ's littlest ones. If you live out your vocation of service, you will find yourself in trouble with the world. In large ways and small, you will bump into the dark spirit of non serviam and feel the power and allure of having it your way; of giving license to your passions to run wild; of using others to your advantage; you will feel the thrill of disobedience, the rush of violating boundaries, and the exhilaration of being applauded for your bravery in conforming to the world's low standards. If you fall to this power, you will “fit right in.” But you will not be a servant, a slave, a witness. And you will not be an heir. Jesus says, “You will have no inheritance with me.” The door to heaven is a service entrance.

If being a servant, a slave, a witness sounds weak; if it all sounds pathetic and dull, then consider: Christ died a servant to his students and rose to defeat death. He won. He didn't fight the Devil. He didn't wage a cosmic war against evil and come out barely alive but victorious. He did the one thing necessary to kill death. He died a servant of eternal life. He died a slave to divine love, as the incarnation of Divine Love. And he manifested that love in flesh and bone on the cross, sacrificing himself to make us holy – set apart, in the world but not of it. When we chose – and we did choose! – to be washed and sealed, we chose to become Christs for the salvation of the world. As mom and dad at home and at work, you are Christs. As students and professors, you are Christs. As priests and religious, you are Christs. As doctors, lawyers, accountants, cops, nurses, cashiers, you are Christs. Whoever you are and wherever you are, you are Christs. You are witnesses to his mercy. You are voluntary slaves of forgiveness and hope. Do you realize what Christ has done for and to you? He has made you foot washers in the world. You have chosen. Your serviam is your salvation.

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27 March 2024

Speak kindly of Judas

Wednesday of Holy Week
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP

St. Albert the Great, Irving

I will speak kindly of Judas. It has been fashionable among the fashionable to look at Judas and see a man unjustly maligned for his careful act of deceit and betrayal. Aren’t we being just a little too hard on the poor man? He was under a lot of stress! The agony of being the one of the Twelve who would betray his Master and friend must have been horrible to bear. The sweaty nights tossing in his bed, worrying about money problems. The constant gnawing bite of ulcers, watching Jesus intentionally provoke the authorities. The pounding headaches from anxiety as his Master and friend claims, near-suicidally, in the middle of thronging crowds, that he is the Son of God! The insults, the arguments with the priests and scribes, even that day when the crowd starting throwing stones and they had to run for their lives! Too much, too much. You can see why he did what he did. All was lost anyway. Jesus’ end was inevitable. Who could blame Judas for siding with the arc of History against a man determined to die? You and I were in the crowd shouting “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” All too soon, you and I will be in the crowd shouting “crucify him!” On the last day, will we ask him, “Surely, it is not I, Lord?”

Some suggest that Judas was predestined to hand Jesus over. Others will claim that Jesus asked Judas to betray him in order to fulfill the OT prophecies that prefigure his sacrifice on the cross. Still others will claim that Judas is a modern, existential figure, a man persecuted by history for making a hard choice and playing out the consequences of that choice with focused integrity. Maybe. What we know for sure is that Judas went to the chief priest. Offered Jesus' freedom and his life to those who would see him dead. He negotiated a price to betray his friend – thirty pieces of silver, the fine for murdering a slave. And then he continued living, working, ministering with Jesus, waiting for an opportunity to hand him over to his enemies.

But I said I would speak kindly of Judas. We all should. Why? Judas is so repugnant to us, so vile a man, and deserving of our contempt that, if we believe, truly believe what Jesus died to teach us, we must find it in our hearts not only to forgive him his violence against Christ, but we must see clearly, staring back at us from the twisted face of the Messiah’s betrayer, our own face – disobedient and scarred by our battles against temptation, by our struggles to find, grasp, and cling to God.

If the Christ is the best face we could wear, turned to the Father in beatitude, then Judas is the face we could wear in those moments of loneliness and distress, moments of despair at ever finding the light again. His is the face we put on when that small devilish whisper causally speaks our ruin: “This cannot be forgiven. Not even God loves you that much.” What aren’t we capable of then? What act of betrayal, deceit, selfishness, or violence is beyond us when we believe we are unlovable?

Speak kindly of Judas. Not to excuse his sin, of course not. Not to make right what is always wrong. But perhaps as an act of caution against what we hope is impossible for us. He is our anti-exemplar, the model of what happens in the ruin of despair, the wreck we make of ourselves when we kill hope with yesterday’s hatred or today’s temporary anxiety. Sometime today, ask in prayer, “Surely, it is not I, Lord?” Wait for an answer and then, with whatever answer you receive, remember mercy, and speak kindly of Judas.

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You are free

5th Week of Lent (W)

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP
St. Albert the Great, Irving

The Jews think that they have never been slaves to sin b/c they are the children of Abraham. Children of the covenant who have never succumbed to idolatry. Fair enough. Except that Jesus isn't just talking about the kind of slavery that comes with the generational worship of idols. He's talking about the kind of slavery to sin that comes with just being human. A condition every child of Adam and Eve is born into. Because the Jews misunderstand the true nature of spiritual slavery, they misunderstand the true nature of spiritual freedom. Thus, in their minds, they are justified in trying to kill Jesus. He's telling them that their covenant with God through Abraham isn't enough to save them. Their freedom is deficient. He says, Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.” Covenant or no covenant, if you sin, you are a slave to sin. The first step to spiritual freedom in Christ is to confess to being a slave to sin. You cannot defeat an enemy you refuse to see. Jesus says, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

There are four stages here: remain in the Word; be a disciple of Christ; know the truth; and be free. Notice that the last three stages are rooted in the first: remain in the Word. Remain in the Word of God, the Christ. Remain in the Word of creation, what is really Real. Remain in the Word of Christ's Body, the Church. Remain in the Word of Revelation, scripture and tradition. Remain in him and with him and you will be a faithful student of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. A disciple of Christ, imperfectly Christ for now, but learning to become perfectly Christ along the Way. And along the Way, your freedom is completed as is your joy. Claiming to be a child of God while remaining in sin is nothing else but claiming to be free while wearing chains. Even worse: it's claiming to be free while wear chains you have put on yourself. The truth will set you free. And the truth is: there is no freedom from sin except in Christ Jesus. Consider Lent your cram session for the final exam of Easter. There's just one question on this final: will you be a disciple of the Word made flesh? If the answer is yes, then you are already free.

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